Back to school: Will I be fined if I keep my children at home due to fears over coronavirus?

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt

Parents who refuse to send their children to schools in England due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus could be fined as a "last resort", the Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb has said.

Mr Gibb acknowledged that some parents would still have concerns but said that there was a "moral imperative" for pupils to return, stressing education was compulsory.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led calls for parents to send their children back toclass and the UK’s chief medical officers have said youngsters are more at riskof long-term harm if they do not attend school than if they return.

Many pupils in England have not been to class since March when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month and many schools in Northern Ireland opened on Monday. Schools in England and Wales are expected to welcome all pupils back from early September.

However, a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that parents still have concerns about their children returning to school.

So, what will happen if parents keep their children out of school over fears of spreading coronavirus?

All schools will be open by early September and attendance is mandatory. Credit: PA
  • Could I be fined if I keep my child out of school?

Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb said that parents could be fined for the non-attendance of their children as a "last resort".

“Fines for non-attendance have always been a last resort for headteachers and schools,”he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“What matters is that young people are attending school.

“We live in a country where education is compulsory and I think parents can be reassured that the measures that schools are taking to make sure that we minimise the risk of the transmission of the virus are very effective.”

Mr Gibb said if parents had concerns they should be able to discuss them with headteachers.

He added: "It is important – it’s a moral imperative – that young people are back in school, because what the chief medical officers are saying now is that the risk of not being in school outweigh the very small risk of children being in school, particularly given all the control measures, the hygiene, the cleaning that’s taking place in our schools.

"There’s an absolute determination to make sure that schools are safe for the children and children want to be back.”

  • How much could I be fined?

Local authorities can fine parents £120 – cut to £60 if paid within 21 days – over a child’s absence from school, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.

Local councils and schools can use other legal powers if your child is missing school without a good reason. They can give you:      

  • a Parenting Order - for instance, compelling you to go to a parenting class.

  • an Education Supervision Order - councils could apply to court to appoint an education supervisor for your child.

  • a School Attendance Order - where parents would have to prove efforts made to get their child to school or has registered them for home-schooling or face prosecution.

  • Could I get a criminal record?

In some cases, yes.

Prosecution is available to local authorities which could lead to fines up to £2,500. It could also mean a community order or jail sentence of up to three months.

The court could also insist on a specific parenting order as part of the conviction.

  • Will most parents send their child back to school?

A survey carried out by the ONS in August found that the majority of parents will be likely to send their children back to school. The survey found nine in 10 adults polled (90%) said it was very likely or fairly likely that the children in their household will return to school or college.

This was a small increase to the same poll taken in July where 89% said they were likely to send them back to school. However, nearly three in five adults with children (58%) surveyed said that they were worried about them returning to school in the new term.  

The main concern reported by adults with children of school age in the next term was that they were worried about them catching coronavirus at school or college.

  • What if my child needs to quarantine?

Pupils who need to quarantine or self-isolate will not be recorded as absent, the Department for Education has said.

From September, schools will be instructed to mark with “code X” any pupil "not attending in circumstances related to coronavirus".

Examples given by the DfE include if pupils need to self-isolate because they or a family member has symptoms or a confirmed case of coronavirus, or if they have been identified as a “close contact” of someone who has or is suspected to have the disease.

It also applies to people who are required by legislation to quarantine if they have returned from certain countries or those that are medically vulnerable in an area subject to a local lockdown.

It does not cover pupils whose parents decide to keep them at home due to concerns about the spread of the virus.

The DfE has also said that the new category of non-attendance “will not count as anabsence (authorised or unauthorised) for statistical purposes."

A poll found many parents are anxious about their child returning to school. Credit: PA
  • What do teachers think of the measures?

Unions have said that the "genuine concerns" of parents about their child's safety should be taken into account.

Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the teachers' union NASUWT said: “The focus must be on winning the trust and confidence of parents on the measures which have been put in place in individual schools to ensure the safety of pupils.

“Many parents will have genuine concerns about whether it will be safe to send their children to school and they will need to know that all necessary and appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that schools are Covid-secure. 

“It is important that the safe return of children to schools is encouraged and that parental concerns are considered seriously and responded to sensitively and appropriately by schools.”

Headteacher union NAHT's general secretary Paul Whiteman said fines “drive a wedge between schools and families at the best of times”, which was “something we can ill afford when getting more pupils back in school will rely on a huge amount of cooperation and understanding between schools and families”.